"Who are you?" It's a question, more rhetorical than anything else, I've heard tumble from my friends' lips, concealed in their voices, in raised eyebrows or bemused smiles, more than a few times over the past year. Often it's the friends dear to me whose history with me extends back to the years before Papa died. Whether I like it or not, his death marks a clear starting point of a self-discovery that, over nearly six years, has rendered me less recognizable as the young woman I was before.
Whether I'm comfortable with this or not, his death was both shattering loss and life-giving release.
* * * * *
It went down something like this: I was barreling down the highway of performance-driven ambition to Minneapolis, then (in my plans) to Africa, coming fresh from two years of a 90 mph lifestyle in graduate school, and years before that of nothing but church ministry and studies. His death was a concrete roadblock that I rammed right into at full speed and graciously survived. My car totaled and the highway impassable before me, all I could do was sit stunned and broken for awhile, peel the remains of my faith from the pavement and put one painstakingly small step in front of the other.
All I could do was learn to walk again. To discover who I am again, or maybe for the first time.
* * * * *
Sometimes I just have to chuckle. I don't think many of my old friends, or even my family members at times, know what to do with these changes in me. I imagine my Pentecostally-inclined loved ones wondering what on earth to do with this girl who used to lead worship dancing on a stage or on her knees, now talking with quiet passion about liturgy, of finding God in Episcopal cathedrals and Spanish mass. The one who lived and breathed Africa now speaking Spanish instead of Swahili. I'm more comfortable lighting candles, whispering prayers and soaking in liturgies sung than I am in exuberant worship concerts. And that's not to say I don't love to be in a room of worshipers singing loud and passionate and free, in whatever form that would take. I do. But it's no longer my primary language of worship. It simply feels like a well-loved shirt that no longer fits the same way. It looked great on me then, but now - my style has changed. My body has changed. I am a different woman.
I don't pray the same as I did before Papa died. I've discarded formulas and jargon. I use less words. "Praying in faith" no longer looks like focusing on a certain outcome as a measure of faith or a supernatural answer to prayer, but an openness to whatever the outcome may be; an awareness of the ways of God being far beyond my limited scope of sight and rational human mind. I talk less about God and in a less touchy feely, gushing sort of way. He's more the essential part of my day, like the air around me, not always needing to be pointed out with words but breathed in fully all the same.
I read different books now, and in them, I've found unlikely mentors and teachers. Many of them have slightly or vastly different politics than me, differing faith or religious beliefs, whichever way you look at it. But through their words and lives, I hear God whispering truth to me. We share threads of common conviction and passion and curiosity, these authors and I, in ways that somehow transcend many of our differences. I feel less threatened by these differences; they are interesting and challenging, unnerving at times and piercingly beautiful in their expression. When I read their words, parts of me that I couldn't speak of before begin to take shape, as if finally breathed on, coming alive and beating within my chest.
* * * * *
I know myself better now than I did six years ago. I know I'm less patient and tolerant of stress than I used to be. I can be more compassionate and empathetic, but also feel more easily overwhelmed by others' pain and sometimes wary of jumping in the midst of it. I can be aloof. I also know, finally, how to cry with people. I get angry, for a lot of reasons, whereas before, the only answer I could give to what made me angry was "injustice." I fight cynicism and disillusionment. I'm willing to admit weakness, to share my pain, to acknowledge depression. I speak my mind more openly and freely, sometimes to my detriment. I'm less sarcastic, more serious, not as laid back and go-with-the-flow, yet oddly somehow more childlike and prone to wonder. I'm more accepting of life not going as I hoped or planned. I know my limitations. I am not as quick to try new things. I appreciate routine. I feel anxiety at being over-scheduled and crave more time alone with less social interaction crammed in between. I sometimes prefer nature to people and feel conflicted by this change in me.
I struggle with reading the Bible and seeing it with fresh eyes. My faith feels less certain of itself and I have fewer answers, see things less black-and-white. I've made peace with the gray places, knowing at the end of the day in a world full of glaring questions, I wouldn't know where else to go but Jesus. I love him deeply, still, and I'm more aware of how pitifully fickle that love is. I don't love him in the emotional up-and-down way I used to, but more like those married couples who are fully committed, partners in the day-to-day, comfortable in companionable silence and in long stretches of love without the fireworks.
I still love to sing my adoration to God with my guitar, and when I do, it's when I feel most connected with that girl-turned-woman I knew all those years ago.
* * * * *
And I wonder, who would I be if my Papa hadn't died and I were still traveling headlong down that highway? Would I have crashed and burned at some other roadblock or milepost along the way? I don't know. And as much as I would give so many things to have him back, alive and present to wrap my arms around, I figure the best way to live my life without him is to walk into each day open-eyed and grateful for the gift of release I received in his death.
I hope if he were still alive, I would still be a daughter he'd be proud of, someone whose company he would still enjoy, even if he had to get to know me all over again.
I hope God would say the same thing.
* * * * *